By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Nashville judge on Friday said that after seeing case files of children who were killed as a result of abuse and neglect, it’s clear that some social workers with the state Department of Children’s Services should have done more to protect them and questioned whether the young victims would ever get justice.
“There have been balls dropped by several individuals,” Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy said at a hearing where she released 42 records of cases of children who died or nearly died after being under the supervision of DCS at some point earlier. In all, the documents totaled about 1,600 pages. An attorney for media organizations that sought the information was in the process of making copies for each outlet, so the files were not immediately available. But the judge said they were difficult to read.
“If you have children it just gets to you,” she said of the records. The judge did not describe any of the circumstances in the files that she said disturbed her.
There were some cases where it took months to perform autopsies on the children, and she raised the question of whether there was any autopsy at all in other cases. If not, that would hinder prosecution.
Abuse or neglect did not cause all the child deaths. Some children had birth defects and died of natural causes or as a result of a traffic accident, McCoy said. She said DCS probably could not have done anything to save those children.
The release of the documents was the result of a lawsuit filed by a group of media organizations led by The Tennessean and including The Associated Press that sought access to records of children DCS was supposed to be helping. The records include children who died or nearly died from 2009 to mid-2012 who had either been placed in custody for protection, or we’re the subject of an active or closed investigation.
The agency was unable to provide additional records in cases involving eight children who died after some type of investigation by the department.
Janet Kleinfelter, a lawyer with the state attorney general’s office, told the judge that DCS didn’t have the records because the department was not notified after the children died. It wasn’t until the deaths were matched against the state Health Department’s death records that officials discovered what happened.
McCoy said the state had until May 31 to release records on 50 additional cases. Media outlets have sought information on 200 cases, and McCoy has said they will get them.
She said that after looking at the files, the media’s arguments for releasing the documents were “well taken.”
Robb Harvey, a Nashville attorney who is representing the media organizations, told McCoy that they would not stop pursuing the records, but they were not about to pay the exorbitant fees demanded by the state.
DCS originally said media outlets would have to pay more than $55,000 for the 200 records. The estimate included more than 7,000 miles of driving to hand-deliver documents from local offices and 600 hours for paralegals to redact the paperwork at a cost of $30 an hour. McCoy has said that DCS could charge the media to make copies but not for redacting the records. On Friday, the judge maintained that it would be reasonable for the media to pay 50 cents per page.
The state is appealing her decision.
DCS has come under fire for failing to keep some of the state’s most vulnerable children safe. Former DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned in February after being criticized by state lawmakers. She was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who has since reorganized the department. Henry has created a new division of child safety and is revising the process for reviewing child deaths.